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Meatpacking Giant Tied to US Child Labor, Brazilian Deforestation and Mass COVID Infection in Both Countries

The Department of Labor filed suit against Brazil meatpacking firm JBS for employing children in Minnesota and Nebraska.

Bulls feed from a trough at a cattle feed lot in the Amazon on June 28, 2017, near Chupinguaia, Rondônia state, Brazil.

In early November, the U.S. Department of Labor filed suit against the Brazil-headquartered, global industrial meatpacker JBS for hiring child labor. Children as young as 13 were hired through a contractor to clean up bloody meatpacking plants in Minnesota and Nebraska.

The suit, filed in the name of U.S. Secretary of Labor Martin Walsh, alleged JBS hired children through Packers Sanitation Services (PSSI) to clean its meatpacking plants during the graveyard shift in Grand Island, Nebraska, and Worthington, Minnesota.

The complaint was presented to a federal court on November 9. Through an investigation carried out in August, the Department of Labor identified at least 31 children between 13 and 17 years of age in hazardous occupations.

The jobs performed by minors included pressure-washing cutlery covered in animal byproduct and cleaning floors where animals are slaughtered with corrosive cleaning products. A 13-year-old child and at least one other teen suffered caustic chemical burns from cleaning products they used.

“When I’m leaving, [the minors] are coming in … around 11 pm,” Ricardo Luna, a 16-year employee at the Worthington plant told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. “They leave bathed in water.”

The Fair Labor Standards Act prohibits work by children under 13, as well as after-hours work by children between the ages of 14 and 15 from June 1 to Labor Day and after 7 pm for the rest of the year. The law also restricts the number of hours minors can work on school days and prohibits children from handling dangerous equipment.

The U.S. Department of Labor requested an immediate injunction against all PSSI operations. On November 10, a federal judge granted the restraining order, pausing operations at the company, which currently employs 17,000 workers cleaning approximately 700 meatpacking plants across the U.S.

PSSI blamed the violations on “rogue individuals,” including a Worthington plant manager, who the company says solicited fraudulent work papers. But based on initial evidence, the Department of Labor alleges the illegal hiring to be taking place at 400 other plants across the country.

PSSI refused to share information with the Department and, according to the department’s suit, allegedly acted in “preventing, discouraging, surveilling, or threatening employees from cooperating with the Department of Labor, and from retaliating against any employees who participate in the investigation.”

Employees Already Bearing Meatpacking’s COVID-19 Spread

JBS’s presence in the U.S. has been the object of criticism and investigation from researchers, state agencies and organized civil society since JBS bought out the U.S.-based Swift and Company in 2007 and started operations stateside.

Agrarian researcher Alessandro Bonanno identifies JBS’s growth from a small Brazilian company into an international behemoth as an example of state capitalism. The Worker’s Party (PT) governments of Presidents Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff supported JBS not only with Brazil’s regulatory might, but also as a minority equity owner.

The company began globalizing consolidated production lines under the Brazilian, early 2000s industrial policy of “National Champions” that continued, if by bribery and other louche means, under the presidencies of Michel Temer and Jair Bolsonaro. Bipartisanship, it appears, isn’t just a U.S. problem.

State support domestically and abroad, and foreign expertise in production and futures trading, helped JBS set up operations worldwide and consolidate agribusiness competitors across countries under its control.

As much as U.S. agribusiness operations flout labor and environmental regulations abroad, JBS imposes the same in the U.S. and other countries. There seems an element of “turnaround is fair play” here — the Global South imposing the blowback of industrial production onto the Global North — but there’s nothing fair in promoting the destruction of land and labor (and consumer interests) in any compass direction.

The pandemic served as another example in which the damage of JBS production is “externalized” onto someone else stateside. The U.S. House of Representatives Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis placed JBS’s — and overall Big Meat’s — role in propagating COVID-19 in U.S. meat plants under sharp scrutiny. According to the subcommittee’s investigation, published in May, the meat industry — including Smithfield, JBS and Tyson — acted in close coordination with the Trump administration to protect its profits and export balances while endangering the lives of plant workers.

However well-intended, Washington reforms of the sector presently appear dubious at best. In June, the USDA announced its intentions to pursue efforts to pivot toward a more resilient food system, including diversifying production in response to a pandemic-disrupted supply chain. The Obama administration’s efforts, under the same Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, to end the meat monopoly and the sector’s conspiracy to depress farmer gate prices were notorious in their defeat.

The Biden administration’s campaign to repeal the Trump administration’s “regulatory boycott” more than a year into the pandemic and shift the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s flimsy recommendations for jobsite COVID protection into enforceable rules did not extend to the food industry.

We learned more on the ground. Of the two of us, São Paulo, Brazil-based Allan de Campos Silva is a geographer interested in the relationships that meatpackers share across countries. Under the sponsorship of the Minnesota-based Agroecology and Rural Economics Research Corps that coauthor Rob Wallace helped found, this past summer, de Campos Silva interviewed immigrant meatpackers at JBS plants in Cold Spring and Worthington, Minnesota. The research is conducted in partnership with evolutionary biologist Kenichi Okamoto and the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul.

Interviewees reported JBS violations and negligence amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

The outbreak in the Cold Spring plant was reported in early May 2020 and initially affected 83 workers. Less than a week later, 194 employees were infected. Earlier that April, President Trump evoked the Defense Production Act, allowing the continued operation of meat plants during the pandemic, even during such ongoing plant outbreaks. Employees at JBS in Cold Spring reported that the company subsequently failed to follow social distancing standards and encouraged employees to work even if they were sick.

About 80 percent of employees at the Cold Spring plant are immigrants from Somalia, who, in Minnesota since the 1990s, are part of the largest Somali community in the U.S. The Somali community at Cold Spring plant organized protests, demanding the closing of the plant for two weeks for disinfection and adoption of better prevention and control protocols. Nevertheless, the outbreak in the Cold Spring plant was soon associated with spread into neighboring counties.

Another outbreak of COVID-19 in the JBS meat plant in Worthington, Minnesota, population 13,000, led to the plant closing earlier in April 2020. Of the plant’s 2,000 workers, 239 tested positive for the virus.

In contrast to the Cold Spring plant, the Worthington JBS plant employs workers from a broader mix of immigrant backgrounds. They are immigrants from a variety of different Latin American, African and Asian countries, including Mexico, Guatemala, Myanmar and Eritrea. The mix would make it more difficult to organize protests and pursue collective demands for greater protection during the pandemic. However, the presence of the grassroots organization Unidos MN would prove essential in helping workers in their efforts at securing greater health protection.

The Worthington meat plant is among 153 other units associated with counties with high rates of COVID-19 contamination in the U.S. By April 2020, Nobles County, in which Worthington is situated, had the highest contamination rate in Minnesota and had already recorded at least one JBS employee death.

According to a community leader that de Campos Silva interviewed, the spread of COVID-19 in the Worthington plant was linked to the increase in extra work shifts in response to JBS pressure in the face of the temporary closure of another plant operated by JBS in Marshalltown, Iowa, in the first half of April 2020. The outbreak at the plant in Worthington would also spill over into Sioux Falls, 60 miles from Worthington, in the neighboring state of South Dakota, from which many JBS employees commuted daily.

Meatpacking plants in the U.S. rely heavily on immigrant employment. Workers in these positions are often underpaid and fear being penalized for revealing symptoms and staying home without pay. Many workers have suffered wage cuts, reduced hours and negative health impacts. Some of these workers live in overcrowded housing and many live in intergenerational family homes. This makes proper social distancing difficult and increases the chances of seniors getting sick in the community.

Neither sped-up work lines nor child labor are new orders of business during an unprecedented pandemic. The use of ill-protected labor has long included the kinds of child labor JBS now claims violates its ethical code. In 2016, JBS was punished for hiring child labor in Brazil. The company was caught using children to collect chickens for slaughter on the night shift and was forced to pay fines totaling more than $500,000.

Illegal Deforestation and Slavery at the Other End of JBS’s Supply Line

The serious complaint about JBS child labor practices in the United States came the same week Repórter Brasil/Unearthed disclosed that JBS bought cattle from a gang that operated in Rondônia and was known as one of the worst deforesters in Brazil.

In 2021, the Repórter Brasil team implicated JBS and other companies in sourcing cattle from ranches that employed slave labor. In 2020, Repórter Brasil also found JBS and rival Marfrig sourced livestock from a farm owner implicated in massacring a group of Indigenous men. The hideous disclosures are accruing annually.

JBS’s presence in this arc of deforestation and murder continues to the other end of Brazilian production. As in Minnesota, COVID-19 outbreaks that began in JBS plants spread out, including into the municipality of São Miguel do Guaporé, also in Rondônia. At the time, about 60 percent of the municipality contracted the virus largely from the company’s initial refusal to implement health protocols for testing and control.

Unlike in the U.S., Brazil objected to JBS’s failure to act to staunch the COVID outbreaks in its plants. JBS was convicted of collective moral damage and fined $3.6 million.

The repeated harm across crisis and country suggests a structural cause. Social scientists have subjected Big Meat’s place in society to broader critical analysis. Sociologists Ian Carrillo and Annabel Ipsen framed the transformation of meat plants into disease epicenters as a sign of sectoral precariousness, even as meat companies reconfigured their COVID-exposed workplaces into another worker sacrifice zone:

Agrifood scholars have long argued that decades of consolidation in the food system have placed the control of our food in the hands of few companies, creating conditions for labor, environmental, and food security crises. COVID-19 has deepened this crisis in U.S. meatpacking, as growing infections among a workforce disproportionately comprised of immigrants and refugees forced plants to close or slow down production. “The supply chain is breaking,” warned one Tyson executive.… With killing floors closed or operating at reduced capacity, suppliers euthanized hundreds of thousands of animals, and processing came to a stand-still in the oligopolized industry.

Sociologists Ivy Ken and Kenneth León argued in a similar vein that the health crisis in meatpacking plants in the U.S. is a consequence of the consolidation of a corporate governance regime, guided by a policy of death, which consists of coercing workers, mostly nonwhite, to risk their lives to keep the treadmills of industry running.

The seeming shock of child labor at JBS plants in the United States, during a week when the world had its eyes turned to COP27 in Egypt and industrial husbandry’s role in climate change, only adds corporate insult to injury. The revelation underscores that like their U.S. counterparts, the “Batista Brothers” — Wesley and Joesley, owners of JBS — are fully engaged in exploiting their way towards the promised land of infinite growth on a finite planet, whatever the damage.

Other people’s well-being outside their roles as compliant consumers or veritable slaves is treated only as an inconvenience. The Batista Brothers, after all, named their boat “Why Not,” referring to the rationale behind bribing politicians in exchange for favorable rulings greasing the way to prosecutorial immunity for the full array of damage and destruction JBS production leaves in its wake.

The Batistas only embody the nature of broader relations felt now across countries. The meat processing plants serve as crystallized centers of the capitalist mode of production, where diseases, hunger, environmental destruction and death are industrialized and shipped.

The processing plants’ deleterious effects — from centers of capital to centers of the forest — are today felt most strongly by the Native peoples on the frontier of deforestation in the Amazon and by the Latino, African and Asian people who work in the plants thousands of miles away, at the other terminus of the supply line.

Faced with these widely arrayed gears of exploitation and destruction, almost planetary in their scope, we need to internationalize our struggles — from São Paulo to St. Paul — so that we may end agribusiness as we know it. Under our common humanity, child labor and slavery and the destruction of the forests on which our species’ very existence depends are indefensible and unforgivable, however much, in this case, politicians are bribed in both countries.

Alternate ways of living together across borders and with other species have long been modeled by peoples who while marginalized by a system centered on manufacturing billionaires also number in the millions. There is a whole world out there making relations of production work for all beyond what’s offered by brand-name cruelty.

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